For pioneering researcher Ruzena Bajcsy, fostering cutting-edge technology to improve people's lives is a noble challenge. It is with this belief that Bajcsy comes to the University of California, Berkeley on Nov. 1 as the new director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS).
CITRIS brings together four UC campuses - Berkeley, Davis, Merced and Santa Cruz - with private industry in an ambitious initiative to develop innovative technology that tackles some of society's most pressing problems. It is one of four California Institutes for Science and Innovation born out of Gov. Gray Davis' call to develop the foundation for the next generation of technologies.
Bajcsy is the former head of the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency that supports research in science and engineering. During her tenure at the NSF, Bajcsy helped establish the foundation's Information Technology Research program, which funds innovative, high-impact research supporting infrastructure in information technology.
"The vision of where information technology research has to go as articulated in that (NSF) program is exactly what we're doing at CITRIS. We're taking IT (information technology) and using it in a way that affects people in their daily lives," said Randy Katz, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley. Katz had been serving as interim director of CITRIS during the center's initial conceptual and organizational phases.
Initiatives at CITRIS include the development of a wireless network of tiny, cheap sensors that could monitor energy use in a building to help save electricity. Sensors could also be used in traffic monitoring systems to save fuel otherwise wasted in congestion. People at risk for heart attacks could wear sensors that could save lives by signaling emergency personnel should a health problem occur.
"CITRIS is more than just developing new technology for its own sake," said Paul Gray, executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Berkeley. "The projects that go on in the institute will be a marriage of important applications, from the delivery of health care to developing systems of climate monitoring."
CITRIS received $20 million in state funding this fiscal year, the first of four installments of a $100 million state commitment to the overall project.
"We're fortunate to be able to attract someone of Ruzena's expertise and experience," said A. Richard Newton, dean of the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley. "For a project of this size and scope, we really needed a leader with an international reputation and with extensive management experience, but the most important thing about Ruzena is that she is absolutely passionate about what we're going to do in CITRIS."
Bajcsy is a top scientist in her own right with more than 40 years of research experience, most notably in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence and machine perception. At the University of Pennsylvania, Bajcsy served as director of the General Robotics and Active Sensory Perception Laboratory (GRASP), a world-renowned research lab she founded in 1978.
Bajcsy's credentials reach across the traditionally discrete fields of neuroscience, applied mechanics and computer science. She is a member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, a distinction few people can match.
"I studied biology and psychology because the best machine is the human machine. After all, modern evolution is the best engineer you can imagine," said Bajcsy. Understanding the needs of researchers in varying fields has helped Bajcsy develop a strong track record for building interdisciplinary consensus, a key skill needed in a CITRIS director, said Newton.
As director, Bajcsy will be responsible for setting the research agenda at CITRIS and communicating the center's vision to the general public, legislators and private industry.
"She has demonstrated a real flair for synthesizing the views of many different people with different backgrounds and expertise, and getting them to work together productively," said Katz. "This skill will serve her very well within the broad community of researchers that encompass CITRIS."
But Bajcsy's extensive professional credentials reveal only part of her story. Born Jewish in Slovakia at a time when Adolf Hitler rose to power, Bajcsy experienced the horrors of persecution firsthand. Her parents and most of her relatives were killed by Nazi troops in 1944, leaving her an orphan at the age of 11.
What Hitler's army could not kill, however, were the values Bajcsy's family instilled in her as a young girl. Her love of engineering came from her father, a civil engineer. Her interest in medicine and in helping others came from her mother, a pediatrician. And the drive to flourish in a field that to this day is underrepresented by women and minorities came from her family.
"I grew up in a family where women were expected to hold their own," she said. "My mother and my aunt were among the first female medical doctors in the central Czech area. My grandfather believed women should be educated."
Bajcsy went on to obtain her master's and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Slovak Technical University in 1957 and 1967, respectively. In 1972, she earned a second Ph.D., in computer science, from Stanford University.
After graduating from Stanford, Bajcsy joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science. When she was promoted chair of the department 13 years later, she became the first woman to hold an academic administrative position at the university's School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Bajcsy broke another barrier in 1998 when she became the first woman to head the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate of the NSF.
Grateful to have survived her tumultuous childhood, Bajcsy emerged with the determination to make a positive impact on society. "You grow up under that circumstance very quickly," said Bajcsy. "That puts a certain value system into you. You quickly recognize what is important and what is less important."
And what is important in technology research, said Bajcsy, is understanding its impact on people. "We eventually have to make very clear where the dangers can be in abusing the technology we develop," she said. "The sensor network for monitoring the environment, for example, can be useful, but it can also bring up the question of privacy and how it can be used to control people. These are issues beyond technology. These are issues that are ethical and moral."
It is part of the responsibility of scientists to understand and to address those tough ethical issues, said Bajcsy. "I'm a scientist, first and above all, but I am also a scientist with great social consciousness," she said. "That is partly why I am so excited about this center (CITRIS). Its aim is to investigate how this technology I've been developing all my life is going to benefit society. Otherwise, why are we designing all these artifacts if they're not going to help people?"